There’s a social media trend right now for highlighting words in German that don’t exist in other languages, but sum up situations. Words like Zweisamkeit (a kind of couple’s isolation many of us might relate to under coronavirus restrictions), or Vorfreude (a pleasure that comes from anticipating pleasure, rather than actually experiencing it).
There’s something profound about the whole thing, and it’s not, naturally, unique to German. Some concepts simply apply to a certain society, whether they’re playful asides, like the Finnish concept of Pantsdrunk (literally sitting at home getting drunk alone in your underwear), or an element of culture that can’t be passed on in another tongue. In Ireland, for example, the traditional language of the country, Irish Gaelic, has been overrun through colonisation over the years. English is now the dominant language, with the old native tongue pushed into the background. But Irish expresses something of the culture that doesn’t translate into English. Europavox star Daithi, who uses Irish samples as roots in a large proportion of his work, explains:
“The Irish language in particular has some amazing expressions and approaches to emotions that are essentially un-translatable, which I think is really special. Often a phrase directly translated to English will sound cheesy or disingenuous, but when said in Irish it has layers of meaning stacked on top of each other.”
Irish language TV host, radio presenter and traditional musician Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh plays a host of music from all over the world, in many languages, on her radio show ‘Malairt Poirt le Muireann’.
“I think you can hear Irish people’s imaginative and sometimes roundabout way of speaking English,” she says, “as though they are trying to express something that there isn’t quite a word for in English. Music reframes the way a language is viewed into a living, breathing means of communicating and creating.”
“When I play minority language songs on the radio, I get a sense of the people from whom these languages came, their emotions and experiences. When a language is dying out, sometimes only the songs remain.”
Of course, this is a state that exists across Europe, from Creole to Cornish. There are only 24 “official languages” of the EU, but more than 200 spoken ones in Europe. Similar stories repeat all over the continent. Catalan vocalist Vicenc Salvador said of his catalan vocals:
“no one ever asks others why they write in Spanish, or English. I write in catalan because it makes me feel who I am, I can only say “t’estimo” – I love you – in catalan with all my strength and passion.”
Welsh native speakers Sŵnami, who perform exclusively in Welsh, and appeared at Eurosonic last year, argue “if Sigur Ros can sing in their own made-up language, why can’t we sing in Welsh?” Ultimately, songwriting is often about emotion, and sometimes that’s simply expressed better in a lesser-known language.
As Daithi concludes, “I feel much more connected to my country when creating in Irish, it’s such an important keystone in my music, It’s what sets me apart from other artists.”
After all, of all the things that unite us across Europe, the ability to be creative in our own unique way is what makes our various cultures exciting, and interesting. Languages each say something, through their phrases and traditions, that doesn’t fully translate across cultures. That’s something we should all be able to appreciate; a celebration of the beauty of what makes us different, and interesting.